The performance and energy drink market once had a fairly niche customer base (i.e. gamers, people looking to stay awake studying or partying, and athletes), and these caffeine-loaded beverages have long held a decidedly unhealthy reputation. However, the market has expanded exponentially in recent years—and created a major opportunity for those in the natural health space to increase their bottom line.

For starters, keeping your beverage aisle well-stocked with a range of quality energy drink products is a great way to reach younger consumers who are increasingly focused on their health. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that aside from multivitamins, energy drinks are the most used supplements by Americans between the ages 18 and 34 (1).

The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased demand for health-conscious energy and sports performance beverages across all demographics, ranging from office workers, exhausted healthcare workers, busy parents, and casual exercisers. Case in point: According to Brandessence Market Research, the energy drink category reached $61.23 billion in sales in 2020 and it is expected to reach an estimated $99.62 billion by 2027. That’s a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2% (2)—and this growth is being driven by health-conscious consumers who want beverages made with cleaner energy sources that offer a broader range of benefits.

“Industry research shows that energy is one of the most sought-after functional beverage benefits. Historically, that demand has caused a relatively small group of consumers to dismiss concerns about sugars, artificial ingredients or high-dose caffeine,” explains Jim Hogan, Director of Brand Marketing, Sports Nutrition, Glanbia Performance Nutrition. “But the vast majority of consumers now are more conscientious about ingredients, and their purchase decisions are trending toward ‘better for you’ products. For the energy drink category to continue to grow in the mainstream, it must evolve to overcome stereotypes and meet the desire for more natural formulations.”

As much as consumers want cleaner sources of energy and low-sugar or zero-sugar formulations, there’s still a lot of confusion as to what that means. “Clean labels are driving innovation, with the largest companies trying to evolve to stay on top of this trend. However, consumers will have to stay alert to the plethora of ‘better for you’ claims, while some products tentatively attempt to hide artificial and unrecognizable ingredients,” cautions Luc Martin-Privat, Pharm.D., MBA, VP, Innovation, Research & Development (a.k.a Brewmaster) at GURU Organic Energy drinks. “The most trending Zero Sugar/Calories claim is often supported by the use of synthetic sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium, and synthetic preservatives are still widely used by the industry.”

Natural health retailers are in a prime spot to help consumers weed out the junk in this category and point them towards truly “better-for-you” offerings. Here, five trends to stock to meet growing demand.

1. Clean energy sources. “Green tea, matcha, yerba mate, and guayusa are the most in-demand natural sources of caffeine in energy drinks, providing the consumers with long-lasting energy without the jitters,” asserts Martin-Privat, noting that GURU is launching a new Yerba Mate drink in April.

Caffeine derived from organic green coffee beans, such as Applied Foods Sciences' GCA green coffee bean extract and Van Drunen Farms' Coffeeberry line, is another strong source of natural caffeine, one with an antioxidant boost from chlorogenic acid.

Other natural energy sources are also on the rise. “Some people have noticed that high-dose caffeine can make them jittery or irritable,” notes Superfrau! CEO Melissa Martinelli. “Consumers are learning there are other options—that natural sources of energy like B vitamins and magnesium can be equally or more effective than caffeine, without the side-effects.”

2. Branded ingredients.“Consumers are becoming more mindful about ingredients and where they come from,” says Derek Pippin, CEO of Truth Nutrition. "They realize that there are effective natural alternatives to many of the synthetic ingredients used today and that more doesn’t mean better in many cases." That’s why he formulated his company’s signature Pre-Workout beverage to include trusted functional branded ingredients that are clinically studied to deliver results, including Futureceuticals elevATP (which supports muscle strength and power) and Neurofactor (which increases levels of the the brain protein BDNF for increased focus and sharper thinking).

A recent survey from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), backs the importance of using quality branded ingredients. Surveying 3,089 adults, CRN found that 63% of supplement users are willing to pay a higher price when it comes to supplements with branded ingredients, and agree that supplements made with branded ingredients can cost more due to quality and effectiveness.

3. Multitasking benefits. "Consumers are expecting more from the new category of healthy performance and enhanced drinks: Not just energy, but functional ingredients that support brain and gut health,” says Martinelli. “Expect to see interest and growth from beverages made with naturally derived, well-balanced electrolytes and functional ingredients like adaptogens.” (For more on adaptogens, check out February's adaptogens article.)

Brands are doubling (or tripling) down on benefits. “To help people reach their performance goals, that frequently means delivering multiple benefits in a single product,” adds Hogan. “Our consumers are looking for beverages suitable for pre-, during-, or post-workout or other athletic endeavors, as well as everyday support of protein intake goals, satiety or anytime energy. We focus on muscle support and recovery, with the highest-quality whey protein and amino acid ingredients. Our energy products also contain electrolytes to support hydration and to replenish essential minerals.”

Other companies, like Nirvana Water Sciences, have upgraded naturally electrolyte-rich spring water with HMB, a compound that helps increase muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle breakdown. And Superfrau’s sparkling whey beverage delivers energizing B-vitamins, stress-soothing minerals and gut-supporting acids.

4. Upcycled & sustainable sips.“More and more consumers are expecting brands to be environmentally responsible," says Hogan. "In a recent study from McKinsey & Company, 40% of surveyed consumers said that sustainability was important to them, with 1/3 indicating a willingness to pay more for brands in recyclable packaging." Hogan adds that GPN is working toward 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by the end of 2030.

We will continue to see big shifts in how products are sold in the coming months and years, Martinelli predicts. “Single-use plastic is no longer acceptable for many consumers,” she explains. “The shift to aluminum cans will increase as aluminum is infinitely recyclable and recycled more often than plastic. Energy and hydration delivered in powder format will continue to grow as consumers look to reduce their impact on the environment while simultaneously looking for convenient, on-the-go performance support. Products like reusable packaging Loop (reusable packaging) as well as ‘fill-your-own bottles from a keg’ at retail will become more widely used.” On the sustainability front, Superfrau! is made from upcycled whey (that would otherwise be thrown away). As she notes, “It’s what consumers are asking for—a beverage that fights food waste and climate change and provides them with benefits for their mind, mood and body.”

5. Fun flavors.Stocking fun and exotic flavors can also be a draw for shoppers. “Blue Raspberry, Green Apple, Fruit Punch are some of the most popular Energy/Performance Drink flavors that will continue to be popular for 2022,” notes Pippin. “We’re also seeing an interest in unique herbal and floral flavor combinations, along with rare or unique fruit pairings like Calamansi, growing in popularity among the natural segments.”

There are opportunities for drinks with international flair, too. “As consumers’ pallets shift to appreciate less sweet profiles with lower sugar, profiles that are beloved in other countries will continue to debut successfully in the U.S.,” says Martinelli. “The tartness of fresh whey, flavors from popular fruits in South America and Asia, and other unique combinations surprise and delight consumers.”


Secrets to sales success In this crowded category, educating consumers about product ingredients and benefits can go a long way toward building a loyal customer base. “One hurdle in marketing functional beverages is overcoming the perception that ‘they are not for me,’” notes Hogan. “We’ve seen those barriers fall due to better understanding of potential benefits and improving product accessibility. But as consumer demand and product availability have increased, consumers have more options—and for many, it’s hard to make the ‘what’s best for me’ choice. At GPN, we want to demystify and democratize nutrition by making it easy for people to understand what they should be shopping for based on their health and wellness goals.” He suggests setting up in-store education sessions that help explain products’ benefits. And of course, one of the best ways to convert curious shoppers to loyal customers is by welcoming them in for a taste test of new energy products that they’re sure to love.WF


  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  1. Brandessence Market Research.
  1. CRN 2021 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements.